Truly Priceless Textiles: A Tale of Sea Silk

Truly Priceless Textiles: A Tale of Sea Silk

We sell natural fiber goods, but some can't be had at any cost.* That's the case with sea silk, a rare fiber found on the outside of shells of the endangered sea mollusk, pinna nobilis.

The women of the Sardinian town of Sant’Antioco are heirs to a legacy of extraordinary weaving craftsmanship, and the secrets of how to harvest, process, treat and weave sea silk, also known as byssus. The fibers are secreted by pinna nobilis  as strands of saliva which are used by the bivalve to anchor itself to the sea floor. These superfine strands are then hardened to keratin by the salty sea, and can be up to 6 cm in length and are golden-brown.

cleaned and combed sea silk fiber

Because the pinna nobilis is an enormous bivalve, which can yield up to 2 lbs of meat, they were used primarily as a food source in ancient Rome. The shells were also used as molds, and for the mother-of-pearl interior. Sea silk was often called other names, such as sea wool, so it's uncertain when it became more commonly used. But its use dates back at least to the second century AD, and may perhaps have been used by Hittites and Phoenicians.

The Natural History Museum of Basel put together an extraordinary project on the history of sea silk, along with a collection of woven artifacts dating back centuries. The fibers were used for gloves, coats, hats and other knit goods, as well as woven artifacts, and were considered luxury goods for their lightweight warmth and softness.

Another article showcases the story of Chiara Vigo, a 62-year-old Sardinian weaver who also works with this fiber, in methods passed down by her family through generations.

Because sea silk, or byssum, comes from a species endangered by seafloor dredging, pollution and disruption of their ecosystem, some fiber artists use the beard fibers from other mollusks in their art, or work with fibers passed down in their family or by a mentor.

And while the Sardinian coast is no longer a robust center for sea silk production, as it was in earlier centuries, the traditions of weaving and fiber art continue with other textiles.

*Sea silk technically can be had, for a price. There have been a few auctions of family heirlooms made of sea silk, or embroidery using older stores of the material, but harvesting new sea silk from pinna nobilis is currently prohibited.

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